The many loves of J.B. McGeachy

McKenzie Porter September 21 1963

The many loves of J.B. McGeachy

McKenzie Porter September 21 1963

The many loves of J.B. McGeachy

McKenzie Porter

A younger colleague honors an elder journalist (below, left) who is one of the world’s most ardent admirers of wine, women and the well - turned phrase

AS A STRUGGLING YOUNG WRITER of fiftVtwo, I sometimes need the guidance and encouragement of an older colleague, a mentor who can figuratively pat me on the head and say: "There, there, my boy. you are coming along quite nicely." That is why I slump over a bar. from time to time, with James Burns McGeachy. known to his friends as Hamish. McGeachy. at sixtyfour. is Canada's most accomplished essayist. His weekly contributions to The Financial Post are as clear, full-bodied and

heady as the whisky of his native Scotland. In his essays he dwells with wit and erudition not merely on the political uproars and economic fidgetings of Canada today, hut upon pornography, racism, the Bible, old battles, patriotism, courtesans, free love, and any other topic that may prod him out of the pleasures of contemplation and into the pains of composition.

McGeachy himself has been described by one close friend as "a beautiful ruin of a man." and by another as "a tottering tower of strength." Though he has lived by the pen and the microphone for forty years, McGeachy bears more physical scars than many men who have lived by the sword. He is a gaunt, hunched, staggering but unbroken figure. Through draping his gangling, six-foot-three frame for so long around typewriter tables that were designed

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"He adores all women because he’s never seen one clearly"

primarily for dinky damsels, he has developed bent shoulders, kneecaps that jut out as bonily as hooded skulls, and feet as widely splayed as Charlie

Chaplin's. Reading and writing for days and nights on end have so weakened his sight that he must lift a manuscript to within twelve inches of his eyes to check what he has typed. As he walks in the streets he thwacks about him with his trusty stick, like a man using a machete to hack a pathway through the jungle. Many a pedestrian has skipped out of McGeachy's way for fear of being cut down. Despite his anatomical imperfections, and his continuing threat to

sidewalk traffic, he remains an attractive man. He wears the most expensive shirts, suits, socks and shoes, exudes constantly a fresh-from-theshower fragrance, and permits himself only one touch of artistic negligence — a battered, rakish, broadbrimmed hat.

It is almost impossible to define McGcachy’s position as a writer. He is in favor, for example, of welfare legislation, but he deplores the consequent tumescence of the bureaucracy.

He is an admirer of British imperialism, >et he writes with compassion about the struggles of new African states. One of his editors says: “There is not a hint of rancor or cruelty in anything McGeachy writes."

Like many writers who were born to battle with the tyranny of nineteenth-century puritanism, McGeachy frequently seeks balsam for his wounds in occasional bouts of wine, women and song. When entertaining, he holds forth magnetically, in a low, slow, luscious mid-Atlantic accent, his voice seeming to originate in the depths of an extinct volcano.

A few weeks ago 1 heard him enlarge at the dinner table on one of his most cherished convictions: that “in human affairs emotion has always played a more important part than logic.” He concluded his lyrical oration with his famous, explosive, selfdeprecatory laugh, a vocal report that can be spelled roughly as “Hah!” Then, impulsively, he downed a great draught of Chablis and was soon misting the eyes of the women with a slightly off-key but strangely haunting rendering of Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair.

McGeachy places romantic love high on his list of important emotions, contending that its inspiration of art and adornment of personality atone for the unpleasant origins and consequences ascribed to it by spoil-sport psychologists. When he was a twentyone-year-old Scottish immigrant in Saskatoon, an academic prodigy seeded for a professorial career, McGeachy had to choose between going to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and remaining where he was, by the side of his first love, a beauty who happened to be married to another man. Walking with this tender friend along a bank of the Saskatchewan River, McGeachy admitted that the scholarship presented a temptation. At once his inamorata jumped into the stream. McGeachy dived in after her and, during the splash and flurry of hauling her to safety, decided that love is more compelling than learning.

McGeachy describes this incident as “the watershed of my life.” This is true, for it faced him with the problem of choosing a career immediately. He became a reporter on the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, and within four years its youngest editor ever. When, inevitably, love betrayed him, he sublimated his grief in wandering journalism, moving on to Winnipeg, Washington and London, and returning tp Canada, after the war, to settle by chance in Toronto.

In these years McGeachy has rarely allowed journalism to interfere with love, in 1941, when he was in London with the BBC, his employers sent hirp to Washington to await the expected announcement of the Lí. S. entry intp the war. McGeachy accepted the invitation of a Yankee Messalina to a weekend in the country, and so absorbing were the purposes of this occasion that McGeachy had neither the time nor the inclination to listen to the radio. He heard about Pearl Harbor twenty-four hours after the rest of the world, via the radio in the cab that carried him back to the city. For his failure to flash the spot news break to the BBC in London, McGeachy was vilified. He made some attempt

at expiation with a studious summary of American reaction to the event, based, as most such summaries are. on the viewpoint of an obliging taxidriver.

The peripatetic nature of journalism ard the fickleness of women kept McGeachy a bachelor until he was nearly fifty. In 1946, soon after he had settled in Toronto, he brought across the Atlantic to the altar Cynthia Foley, a London-born Scots-lrish actress, a gay, winsome, affectionate woman who adores her husband and embroiders his social presence. Cynthia and Hamish McGeachy address each other in company as “my own dear life,“ “my precious sweetheart,” “my darling lamb,” “my little lovey duck.” and “skookams.” The marriage has been idyllic perhaps because, in McGeachy's words, “Cynthia doesn't mind too much if 1 flirt just a little with other women.”

Tommy Tweed, the CBC actor and writer, thinks that McGeachy, his friend of thirty years, adores all women because he has never seen one clcarh. In Tweed's opinion, McGeachy's short sight is a blessing. “It enables Hamish to visualize all women as beautiful. He lives in a world peopled almost entirely by misty enchantresses. No wonder he's so poetic."

His personal style has always been at least as poetic as his essays. Old colleagues recall that in his early days on the Slur-Phoenix, McGeachy's line tailoring and debonair manners stood in sharp contrast to the more Bohemian mien of the lesser scribblers. They certainly impressed his bosses. One day McGeachy was summoned to an exclusive Saskatoon club for his first lunch with the owner of the Slur-Phoenix, Sir Clifford Sifton. “1 thought,” McGeachy recalls, “that it would be advisable to rehearse an opening conversational gambit suitable to an old gentleman of such riches and distinction.” At lunch McGeachy voiced a long, well-rehearsed question, into Sir Clifford’s enormous ear trumpet.

Sir Clifford roared “Eh?”

McGeachy repeated his question in a louder voice.

Sir Clifford bellowed: “Eh? Was-

sat?”

By this time a hush had fallen over the dining room. Eating and service had ceased. Every ear in the club was cocked toward the table at which sat the great old man with his youngest editor.

McGeachy took a deep breath and bawled into the ear trumpet a question of which he was now heartily sick: “TELL ME, SIR CLIFFORD, DO YOU THINK THE PRAIRIES WILL EVER SEE AGAIN SO GREAT AND SO BENEFICIAL A WAVE OF BRITISH IMMIGRATION AS THA L FOR WHICH YOU, A FEW YEARS AGO, WERE SO REN OWNED L Y RESPONSIBLE?’’

Sir Clifford looked at McGeachy with shining eyes and said: “A very good question.”

McGeachy says: “From that moment on 1 didn t say a word. Sir Clifford did all the talking.”

On the way out ot the club Sir C liftord and McGeachy encountered one of the Sifton sons, a man who was to receive the Stur-Phoenix as a gilt. Io his son Sir Clifford said:

“Keep an eye on McGeachy. A very bright young fellow.”

McGeachy considers that he was stupid rather than bright when he accidentally unleashed upon Canada the Social Credit party. In 1928, McGeachy played host in his Saskatoon apartment to Maurice Colbourne, an actor touring with an English company of Shavian repertory players. Colbourne, a political thinker on the side, had written a book. Unemployment or War, in praise of the mone-

tary theories of Major C. H. Douglas, and he asked McGeachy if there might be a sale for his book in western Canada. McGeachy put him in touch with the operators of the mobile libraries that carried learning across the plains. The result was an order for a dozen copies.

Four years later, a tattered copy fell into the hands of William Aberhart, the fiery lay preacher of Calgary. A month passed before Aberhart bothered to read it. When he

began it he finished it in a night. “Eureka!” cried Aberhart and forthwith created the Social Credit Party.

McGeachy writes: “It is a cautionary tale, pathetic, hilarious but also frightening because what happened in Alberta could happen again somewhere else given the same fortuitous combination of hard times, religious fanaticism, sexual scan d a 1 and a prophet of pseudo-Mosaic dimensions."

McGeachy has always enjoyed mak-

ing fun of politicians. Esse Ljungh, CBC drama supervisor, was a colleague of McGeachy during his years on the Winnipeg Free Press. He recalls that members of the Manitoba provincial legislature, when concluding a speech, “always looked up at the press gallery as if saying to Hamish: 'Was that okay?’ If they noticed that Hamish was sound asleep, which he often was, they looked most relieved.”

As a correspondent for the Sifton papers, McGeachy reported the out-

break of the Second World War from London. Shortly afterwards he resigned from Sifton’s group to join the overseas service of the BBC. Apart from his wartime visit to Washington, he was in London throughout the conflict. Twice a day, throughout most of the war, McGeachy spoke dispatches, one to North America, the other to South America. He became famous as “the voice of Canada in London.” In 1945 he returned to Canada from London with the intention of

taking a brief holiday in Montreal and Toronto. The scale of his welcome overwhelmed him. Many of his old Prairie colleagues had moved east during the war and were waiting to fete him. One Toronto party was, in McGeachy’s words, “the most Homeric of my life.” It lasted two weeks. McGeachy long overstayed his BBC leave.

There came a telephone call from Sir William Haley, director general of the BBC in London. “McGeachy,”

said Sir William, “your holiday is over. When do you intend to return?” McGeachy admitted he was not quite sure. “Then,” said Sir William, “our relationship is severed.”

McGeachy’s recovery was remorseful and penurious. But the pain didn’t last long. He was offered a job as an editorial writer on the Toronto Globe and Mail by its publisher the late George McCullagh.

Editorial writers normally are anonymous, but McGeachy preserved his fame by radio and television work and by public speaking. One of his radio programs, Now l Ask You, a sort of superior quiz show with panelists Ralph Allen, James Bannerman and Morley Callaghan, is still running, after fifteen years. On television McGeachy averaged two appearances weekly. Once, on Nathan Cohen’s Fighting Words, he appeared with Maclean's writer Barbara Moon. Inadvertently Miss Moon poured herself a long drink from McGeachy’s water carafe and sank it at a gulp. Thereafter she said not a word, for she had been robbed of her voice and her wits by six ounces of straight gin.

In 1957, Oakley Dalgleish, who succeeded George McCullagh, decided that McGeachy was making too many appearances outside the office and too few inside. And so, at fifty-seven, McCieachy found himself unemployed. He slipped into one of the deep troughs of despair that have characterized much of his life, but The Financial Post soon pulled him out of it by offering him an associate editorship and freedom to write what he liked, when he liked. On The Post, over the past seven years, McGeachy has penned his greatest work.

The opinions of the mature McGeachy are frequently unorthodox. On the cold war: “As it looks to me, the U. S. and Russia must some time come together as partners in the management of the world.” On colonialism: “Imperialism, on balance, I judge to be one of humanity’s most brilliant political ideas; and the advantages it has brought to countless Africans and Asians are quite beyond computation.” On democracy: “It is a virtue in our system, not a flaw, that we can make fun of politicians, pay attention to slogans, let emotion be our guide. We can afford these luxuries because our leaders, though liable to err, are never sinister; we can trust even the most foolish of them to do their best for us, their clients and bosses.”

The scholarship that McGeachy wears today with easy grace is rooted in the Greek and Latin he swotted at Glasgow Academy, a distinguished Scottish private school. McGeachy’s father, an affluent furniture manufacturer, a stern, pious man with a substantial home in Kilmacolm, on the outskirts of Glasgow, wanted young Hamish to go into the ministry of the Presbyterian c h u r c h. McGeachy’s mother, a blithe, intellectual woman, soon recognized that her son’s bright mind would never be confined within the limits of theology.

McGeachy, and his sister Barbara, now a medical doctor in England, had a merry childhood in spite of their father's severity and rectitude. The degree to which McGeachy inherited his mother’s sense of humor is reflected in one of his essays about

his boyhood. He is describing his father's lack of judgment in engaging an attraction for a social evening at the Kilmacolm Literary Society, an attraction advertised as “George Johnson’s Entertainers: Refined, Educational, A Treat for the Whole Family.”

“On a snowy evening,” writes McGeachy, “Mr. Johnson and colleagues, male and female, arrived at . . . our house. My mother, who had prepared a spread for them, found them spinechilling. They didn’t look refined to her. They attacked the decanters with what seemed like excessive gusto. I remember only snatches of the performance. At one point the star, no other than Johnson himself, heaved a large custard pie at the comedienne. Whether Hollywood picked up the idea from Paisley I do not know but the pie landed, exploded, and trickled in the style that California later made famous. The comedienne obliged with a Rabelaisian song involving cabbages and leeks, followed by a dance that called for a lavish display of redflannel drawers. Then there was a fellow who was apparently suffering from an infestation of bugs and fleas. Clad in long woolen combinations, he liberally doused his person with Keatings powder, popular then with man and beast. Looking like a sack of flour, he ended by firing revolver blanks into his armpits and then jumped through a prop window backstage. These were only the higher cultural moments in an evening that was long famous in Kilmacolm’s history.”

McGeachy senior made a second misjudgment shortly before World War One when furniture manufacturers were suffering from a shortage of mahogany. He invested most of the family fortune in a supposed treasure trove of mahogany groves in Kansas. The promoters of the company were crooks. The money was lost. And so the McGeachys emigrated to Saskatoon, where the head of the house restored his family to comfort if not to riches by dealing in the real estate business.

McGeachy continued his classical studies, working far into the night. He was a schoolboy wonder. Majoring in modern history, he became a bachelor of arts of the University of Saskatchewan at eighteen, a master of arts of the University of Toronto at nineteen. He did a year’s postgraduate work at Princeton. “There,” he says, “I was introduced to the fleshpots.” He returned to Saskatoon to find a Rhodes Scholarship awaiting him. “I suppose,” he says, “I’d have followed an academic career if I had not fallen in love.” ★